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Nearly 40 years after first moon walk, Brevard County looks back

COCOA BEACH — For Roger Dobson, it meant the end of duck hunting on the lagoon near his home.

For Bob Baugher, it meant an end to riding a motorcycle on the beach.

For Bob Hudson, it meant the federal government taking his property on an undeveloped barrier island.

For Herman Wattwood, it meant having to wear a name tag to the suddenly crowded PTA meetings.

But nearing the 40th anniversary of mankind's first footsteps on the moon, July 20, 1969, none of these longtime Brevard County residents regrets the loss of a far-simpler time swept away by the arrival of what became the county's landmark, the Kennedy Space Center.

Before the space race took over, Brevard, across Florida and northeast of Tampa Bay, was mainly citrus groves and commercial fishing in the 1950s. That's the decade when aerospace workers descended on the part of Brevard's Merritt Island named Cape Canaveral.

County census figures help paint the picture of rapid and drastic change:

• 1950 — 23,653

• 1960 — 111,435. A prototype of a Saturn rocket that would thrust Apollo crews toward the moon was first tested in October 1961.

• 1970 — 230,006. In the year after the first moon walk, there were nearly 10 times as many residents as 20 years earlier.

Thrills amid growth

"Our schools had to go on double sessions year-round, we were using portable classrooms and we were building about a classroom a day" to accommodate the aerospace workers' children, recalls Herman Wattwood, 80 and a third-generation Titusville resident.

This former supervisor of postal operations added that in the 1960s, "Our delivery routes were about 500 houses and we had to add a route about every month and a half."

Wattwood remembered Merritt Island as a place for locals "to go hunting and fishing — and they homesteaded there, too. It was raw back then."

But the government used its powers of eminent domain to take the land owned by locals, including that of longtime newspaper editor and publisher Bob Hudson, now 88.

"The Apollo program was very glamorous, very upbeat — going to the moon," remembers Hudson. "But we had overcrowded schools and an increase in traffic" because Titusville was the nearest mainland town to the cape.

For the children, there were different thrills.

Wattwood's niece, Laurilee Thompson, says she watched barges moving houses from Merritt Island to the mainland, and her family gathered on lawn chairs to watch launches just 10 miles away.

The 56-year-old restaurant owner also said she used to race her friends along the dirt paths west of town that were being graded as the base for Interstate 95.

Roger Dobson of Cocoa Beach remembers going to a one-room schoolhouse on the cape in 1937, a place that was "sleepy — it was all fishing and citrus back then."

But the arrival of "aerospace changed the whole complexion of Brevard," said Dobson, an accountant and hotel owner who has served on county agencies promoting tourism and economic growth.

In the 1960s, Dobson said, "at least 90 percent of the 125 homes in my neighborhood were occupied by people with some connection to Apollo . . . things were rocking and rolling. We had seen many liftoffs but we had a party — lots of people did — to watch the Apollo 11 moon landing. And when we saw it, there was applause."

Space defines economy

Just six years earlier, what would become an icon in Cocoa Beach opened.

In 1963, New Jersey transplant Ron DiMenna opened Ron Jon Surf Shop, at the end of the street on which 13-year-old Bob Baugher lived.

Between the mainland and the barrier islands, "The Banana River was like Silver Springs back then — so clear you could spearfish in it," recalls Baugher, who worked at Ron Jon as a youngster.

"And I rode my motorcycle down the beach from here to Sebastian Inlet," about 33 miles.

Baugher would earn a business degree from the University of South Florida, then return to Ron Jon as an executive for 22 years. He marketed the business heavily to Orlando's theme park visitors, helping turn Ron Jon into a multimillion-dollar business with several outlets.

Baugher left the company in 1997, and right next door built a 268,000-square-foot competitor, Cocoa Beach Surf Co.

The multistory retail outlet has a 5,400-gallon aquarium and opens on to a 78-room hotel, restaurant and Starbucks franchise. Baugher owns three other hotels and serves on Brevard's tourism development agency.

He's aware that, as former newspaperman Hudson said, "The county put all of its eggs in the aerospace basket."

That brought with it too little control of development and a roller-coaster economy dependent on employment at the Space Center.

"This area has made a number of mistakes," said Baugher, 59. "Our natural resources were not protected . . . We could not visualize that what we used to have would disappear.

"Now, our rivers and lagoons need to be cleaned, stormwater needs to be controlled . . . You can still find Florida like it used to be, just not on the beach."

Fellow hotelier Dobson, who used to put on waders to hunt ducks along the Banana River, now has to get a permit to hunt them on what became the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. As for the growth, "I don't really see a downside to it — as long as there is good government planning and impact fees" levied on developers.

"When I was a county commissioner, at one meeting an orthopedic surgeon politely attacked me over the issue of growth. I told him that when I was a kid, there was no need for a CPA in Brevard. And certainly no need for an orthopedic surgeon."

What does Dobson think about the changes over the decades?

"The water is still here, the weather hasn't changed — and we have fewer mosquitoes."

Robert N. Jenkins is the former Travel and LifeTimes editor of the Times.

by the numbers

23,653 Brevard County population in 1950 before any of the aerospace workers had arrived

111,435 Population in 1960. A prototype of a Saturn rocket that would thrust Apollo crews toward the moon was first tested in October 1961.

230,006 Population in 1970. In the year after the first moon walk, there were nearly 10 times as many residents as 20 years earlier.

Nearly 40 years after first moon walk, Brevard County looks back 06/22/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 22, 2009 4:30am]
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